Hillary Clinton

Is Viktor Orbán playing chicken?

It was only yesterday that a lengthy psychological portrait entitled “The Patient’s Name is Viktor Orbán” appeared in Népszabadság under the pseudonym Iván Mester. The author is an associate professor, I assume of psychology or psychiatry, at an unnamed university. In this article “Mester” states that because of his character traits Orbán “is unable to stop … he is insatiable.” What is going on in front of our eyes is a manifestation of his inability to let go. He has to win against all odds.

This afternoon the latest episode of this “drama” (because I’m convinced that for the prime minister this is a real drama) took place in parliament. According to house rules, Orbán had to appear in parliament to answer questions personally. Gergely Bárándy (MSZP) wanted to know “who is lying” about the corruption case involving six Hungarian citizens, of whom at least three are high officials in the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service. Bárándy wanted to know whether it is true that the Hungarian government knows what these people are accused of by the U.S. government. The exchange can be read in an abbreviated form on the web site of the Prime Minister’s Office.

As Orbán explained, the U.S. chargé d’affaires claims that the president of the Nemzeti Adó- és Vámhivatal (NAV) can be personally tied to corruption involving an American firm doing business in Hungary. “According to Hungarian law, in a case like that one ought to start legal proceedings. This is what I expect from the president of NAV. If she does not do so without delay, I will replace her.” In Hungary a person found guilty of corruption does not get replaced but is locked up, said Orbán. “So, the stakes are high.” If the American diplomat can prove the charge and the court finds her guilty, then the head of NAV will be incarcerated. “But if, on the other hand, the American diplomat’s charges are untrue there will be consequences.”

Viktor Orbán is forging ahead

Viktor Orbán is forging ahead

Bárándy pointed out in his rebuttal that the lawsuit Orbán is recommending cannot take place in Hungary. The only solution is what André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé, has repeatedly recommended to Ildikó Vida, the head of NAV. She should apply for a visa at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, whereupon she would be told the reasons for her ban.

Orbán countered that if an American chargé accuses a Hungarian official of a crime, he cannot “hide behind his diplomatic immunity. He should be a man and accept responsibility for his claims.”

What the official government version of the exchange did not mention but Népszabadság included in its coverage was the following dialogue between Orbán and Bárándy. The MSZP member of parliament asked whether Orbán “can venture to state that the Hungarian government and authorities have no knowledge of the nature of the cases that resulted in barring the president of NAV from the territory of the United States.” Orbán did not answer this question. Instead, he stressed that the solution lies “in the world of the law,” which in my opinion is a confirmation of the government’s knowledge of the American allegations.

André Goodfriend, as usual, responded promptly by posting a short note on Twitter: “US & Hungary have excellent legal cooperation, including a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty.” And indeed, back in 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Balázs signed the Protocols of Exchange of Instruments of Ratification for the 2005 U.S.-Hungary Mutual Legal Assistance Protocols and the U.S.-Hungary Extradition Treaty. Clinton said at the time that “these twin agreements will give our police and prosecutors in both countries state-of-the-art tools to cooperate more effectively in bringing criminals to justice on both sides of the Atlantic. They form part of a network of similar agreements that the United States has reached with all the countries of the European Union.” Balázs, for his part, stressed the close cooperation between the two countries.

In addition to the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, Goodfriend called attention to a legal guide for judges written by a lawyer specializing in international litigation. The message is that Hungary should turn to the United States asking for official legal assistance. Apparently, the Hungarian prosecutor’s office did ask for assistance but the request was not official. Details of the differences between the two can be found in an earlier article in 444.hu.

The question is what Viktor Orbán is trying to achieve by this latest move. Among my knowledgeable friends one thinks that the foxy prime minister is trying to find an excuse to fire Ildikó Vida because “he knows that she is guilty.” My answer to this supposition is that of course Viktor Orbán knows full well that she is corrupt because she was put there for the very purpose of running a corrupt organization. That is part of her job description. She is there as the emissary of a corrupt government headed by the prime minister himself. Another friend, following the same line of reasoning, thinks that Vida’s refusal to sue Goodfriend will give Orbán an opportunity to fire Vida in such a way that he will not be seen as bending under U.S. pressure. This way he will save face. I don’t see much merit in that hypothesis either. What prevents Ildikó Vida from bringing charges against Goodfriend? Nothing. She can certainly try. It could happen that the court refuses to hear the case, but this would not be Vida’s fault. She sued, just as Orbán demanded. Another possibility would be if the Hungarian courts decided to hear the case but the United States government forbade Goodfriend from appearing in court. Thus he would be a man who does not accept responsibility for his claims, to use Orbán’s words. In my opinion that would be the best scenario as far as Viktor Orbán is concerned. And, as opposed to my friends, I believe this is exactly what he is planning to do. What do you think?

Free and fair election? It doesn’t look promising

It was on August 6, 2011 that I reported on Hillary Clinton’s apprehensions about the state of democracy in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. She talked about the two-thirds majority that  “offers the temptation to overreach. It can … allow for important checks and balances to be swept aside, and valid objections from citizens to be ignored.” This is why “the United States and other friends” are urging Hungary to pay special attention to the drafting of the cardinal laws. “The most important of these will pertain to an independent media and judiciary, and free and fair elections. The system cannot be permanently tilted to favor one party or another.”

Elsewhere, also during the same trip to Hungary, in a conversation with leaders of the opposition she reiterated that holding “free and fair elections” is a prerequisite of democracy. If that principle is violated, we can no longer talk about a free and democratic society. She practically told the opposition leaders: let’s see what happens. Until then, we cannot do anything.

Well, the national election will be held on April 6, 2014, and it can easily happen that it will be anything but fair. It will be a system that is “tilted to favor one party.” Foreign observers will most likely not find wholesale cheating, although even that possibility cannot be entirely ruled out, but the constantly changing laws over the past year or so are destined to tilt the playing field in favor of the governing party.

Here are a few worrisome signs that Viktor Orbán is planning to determine the outcome of the election through rules and regulations that are disadvantageous to the opposition. Let’s start with the introduction of a system that forced all the opposition forces to form a united front against one highly centralized and monolithic party, Fidesz. Getting the divergent parties to agree to a common platform took a long time and gave an undue advantage to Fidesz. Second, the redrawing of the electoral districts greatly favors Fidesz. Third, according to the Hungarian constitution the president alone can determine the date of the election within a certain time frame and naturally János Áder, a former Fidesz politician, picked the earliest possible date, which favors the government party. He did that despite the fact that a later date would have allowed the government to hold the national and European parliamentary elections at the same time. Another reason for not holding the two elections simultaneously was Fidesz’s desire to have a low turnout at both elections. A low turnout favors Fidesz.

Then came all sorts of new rules and regulations that make campaigning very difficult, especially for the opposition. Fidesz has an enormous cache of most likely illegally acquired funds in addition to the incredible amount of money the government spends on advertising itself. The government, again illegally, gave millions and millions of forints to CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), an allegedly independent organization that is behind the pro-government Peace Marches. As I mentioned a few days ago, such a demonstration is planned for March 29, a week before the election.

Ferenc Gyurcsány’s presence in the united opposition obviously came as an unpleasant surprise to the Fidesz leadership and they immediately moved into high gear. CÖF, on government money of course, put up huge billboards attacking the leaders of the opposition. On the billboard one can see mug shots of Attila Mesterházy, Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and of all people, Miklós Hagyó, former deputy mayor of Budapest whose case is still being decided in court. Next to Gyurcsány there is a clown embracing the former prime minister. This is clearly a campaign poster although the campaign officially starts only on February 3. One hundred right-wing “intellectuals” also signed a letter addressed to Attila Mesterházy “demanding” the removal of Ferenc Gyurcsány from the ticket. They are worried about the good reputation of the renewed socialist party. My heart goes out.

The "independent" Civil Összefogás Forum's billboard that says: "They don't deserve another chance"

The “independent” Civil Összefogás Fórum’s billboard: “They don’t deserve another chance”

Campaigning is severely restricted. Originally, parties could advertise only on the public television and radio stations and to a very limited extent. During the whole 50-day campaign period, all parties together can have only 470 minutes of advertising time, less than eight hours. In the original electoral law parties couldn’t advertise at all on commercial television stations, but because of pressure from Brussels the government generously changed the rule. They can advertise on commercial stations, but the stations must offer their time slots gratis. At the same time government propaganda is pouring out on both the public television and radio stations while news about the views of the opposition is practically nonexistent.

Just lately the government came out with another brilliant idea to keep the electorate as ignorant as possible. Until now citizens who were annoyed with the barrage of commercial advertising in their mailboxes could remove their names from such targeted lists. The government decided to extend this option to political advertising as well. Each adult citizen will receive a questionnaire in which he may express his wish to be left alone. That is, he can say that he doesn’t want campaign literature appearing in his mailbox that is addressed to him as an individual. The government party doesn’t have to worry about such restrictions; it has the money to send out campaign material to all eight million voters by simply dropping its ads into every mailbox. This is permissible because individuals aren’t being targeted; everyone is being treated equally.

The latest is that no campaign material can be placed on electric polls, above public roads or along highways, and within 100 meters of a highway. TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, and the Károly Eötvös Institute, a think tank of legal scholars, protested, claiming that this new rule severely restricts the freedom of speech and therefore is unconstitutional.

And there’s another way the playing field isn’t level. Voters living in the neighboring countries can vote by absentee ballot while Hungarian citizens who were born in the country but temporarily work abroad must cast their votes in Hungarian embassies and consulates, which might be hundreds and hundreds of miles away from where they live and work. Clearly, Fidesz hopes that the new citizens, in a show of gratitude, will vote for the government party while it fears that the new emigrants have a less charitable view of the political situation created by the Orbán government.

Another outrage is the new law that deprives those who declare themselves to be a member of a minority of their right to vote for a party. There is only one large group where this new rule can have serious ramifications, the Roma, who make up approximately 8% of the population. Aladár Horváth, a Roma activist, alongside of other ethnic leaders, has been working very hard to persuade voters not to sign up as members of the Roma minority. It seems that their message is getting through. Until now only 57 Roma have declared their intention to vote for the official Roma ticket, which is part and parcel of the Fidesz machine.

All in all, I would be curious what Hillary Clinton’s opinion is now of the state of affairs in Hungary. Does she think that Hungary can have a free and fair election in which “the system [is] not permanently tilted to favor one party or another”? Speaking for myself, I don’t think so.

General government retreat in Hungary? I doubt it

A couple of interesting political developments surfaced this morning, but I think it is too early to draw any meaningful conclusions about their import. The first is that parliament will not discuss an amendment to the electoral law. About a week ago a Fidesz backbencher, Árpád János Potápi, submitted the amendment that should have been debated today. However, Magyar Nemzet learned (they always manage to learn things from government sources) that the amendment will not be on today’s agenda.

What was this amendment that Potápi, it seems, withdrew? According to his amendment, statistical details about the new citizens residing abroad must be kept “secret” for national security reasons. We wouldn’t even know how many people are eligible to vote from the neighboring countries and therefore wouldn’t be able to check whether the final results that the government releases are accurate or not.

This plot has been on the drawing board for a very long time because, let’s face it, granting citizenship to Hungarian nationals in the neighboring countries serves only the governing party’s interests. An incredible amount of time and money were  spent registering as many new citizens as possible. There  was a bit of a problem in Slovakia, a country that responded to the Hungarian attempt at dual citizenship for about half a million Slovak citizens with a counterattack. No dual citizenship is allowed in Slovakia with the exception of Czech-Slovak citizens. Ukraine forbids dual citizenship, period. Most Hungarians in Serbia became Hungarian citizens not so much for voting rights but for a Hungarian passport that allows them to move to western European countries where they are, as Hungarian citizens, permitted to work. The bulk of the new citizens come from Romania, where Fidesz politicians think Fidesz has a significant edge over MSZP or other left-wing parties.

Csangos (ceangăi/ csángók), a Catholic group numbering 3,000  living in Moldavia  receive their Hungarian citizenship / HVG Photo Gergely Túry

Csangos (ceangăi/ csángók), a Catholic group numbering 3,000 living in Moldavia, receive their Hungarian citizenship / HVG Photo Gergely Túry

In January of this year HVG asked the government for the statistics it had gathered on voters residing abroad, but its request was denied. HVG promptly sued the Ministry of Administration and Justice. The case is still pending. Not much was heard about the case until  March 12 when Petápi’s amendment showed up on the Hungarian parliament’s website. The government, it seems, was answering HVG‘s suit with a change in the law. By now this is a customary ploy of the Orbán government. If they don’t want to do something, they simply change the law.

Although the reaction of the opposition was slow in coming, by March 19 all groups joined in the outcry, including Jobbik.  Discussion on the amendment began in the middle of the night, as normally happens when the topic is important and/or sensitive. The government’s justification of the move was that countries like Slovakia might harass or even expel Hungarian nationals if they find out that their citizens, after all, took out Hungarian citizenship. But, of course, this is not the reason. In fact, eligible voters abroad will be notified by mail that they are on the election list. So, one way or the other the Slovak government will know who became a Hungarian citizen. Moreover, Viktor Orbán already sent out 60,000 letters to Hungarian nationals in Romania urging them to vote at the next election. The story is circulating in Romania that Romanian authorities scan all letters coming from Orbán and therefore they already have a nice long list of 60,000 names.

The list of eligible voters living in Hungary is available. Everybody can go to city or town hall and check whether he/she is on the list. We know exactly the number of eligible voters and thus we know what percentage of them actually voted and who they were. But if such details in the case of voters from the neighboring countries are not revealed, we have absolutely no way of determining the veracity of the statistics the government releases after the election. The Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) rightly cried foul and reminded people of the so-called “blue slip” election of 1947 which the communists rigged by insisting that people could vote anywhere in the country as long as they had a blue slip in hand. Naturally, many voters had several blue slips in their pockets. I actually knew someone who as a young communist enthusiast participated in this fraud and was carried by truck from city to city to vote many times over.

The Orbán government was all set and ready to vote on the amendment. Less than a week later, however, they changed their minds. Perhaps someone in the high party leadership came to the conclusion that if that amendment is tacked onto the electoral law the rest of the democratic world will question of very validity of the 2014 election and with it the legitimacy of  a new elected Orbán government. Perhaps someone remembered that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when she was in Budapest in June 2011, emphasized during her meeting with the opposition leaders that one cannot speak of democracy if the election is not free and unfettered. That’s why, she added, one must pay attention to the election law the Orbán government was working on at the time. In brief, if there is any question about the validity of the election, the consequences might be dire for the Orbán government.

The other development is also noteworthy. Magyar Hírlap learned from unnamed sources that “there will be modifications” to the Law on Religions. As of this afternoon I read nothing about the nature of the modifications. But there seems to be a retreat on the part of the Orbán government. Knowing how this government operates, however, one must not let one’s guard down. They will try to find some other way to achieve their original goals. We can only hope that the European Union and the United States will not be fooled.